Smile: You’re on camera all over Eugene these days. Do a Google search for “Eugene webcam” and you’ll find cameras filming public spaces from the UO to the Owen Rose Garden. A recent revelation that Lane Transit District (LTD) had looked into not just videoing but also audio recording individual conversations on Eugene-area buses has local defenders of civil liberties concerned.
A Dec. 10 story on The Daily that was picked up by Wired.com revealed that LTD had send out a request for proposals that sought “microphones capable of distilling clear conversations from the background noise of other voices, wind, traffic, windshields wipers and engines.” According to the story, LTD requested a minimum of five audio channels spread across each bus, and “each audio channel shall be paired with one or more camera images and recorded synchronously with the video for simultaneous playback.”
Andy Vobora, LTD spokesman, says that the story cited a request that was not fulfilled, and the buses still only have two mics, not five — one for the driver and one for the rest of the bus. Vobora says LTD has been video and audio recording for several years and has a sign at the front of the bus announcing that. He says the reason for increasing the mics was in order to monitor if “something's going on that violated someone’s rights” and cited examples of accusations of racism of sexual harassment that without audio cannot be substantiated.
He says that the “vast majority of bus riders appreciate knowing we have that [recording] capability when something comes up.”
Attorney Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center is concerned about the mic request. She says, “It is really unfortunate that people, particularly lower income people who really have no choice but to use public transportation, are basically coerced into giving up their rights to privacy while using that resource.”
Regan says those concerned about surveillance are often told, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, then you shouldn’t care.” But she says, “If we don’t assert our right to privacy and right to live in a state where the government is not constantly monitoring its people for whatever reason then we lose those rights.”
She disputes the idea that “Big Brother” monitoring people when they go out in the public domain makes people safer, calling it Orwellian: “It’s not about keeping us safe because nobody is live monitoring that feed.” Regan says her guess is that LTD called for the mics because, “This is something they can tell their mega-insurance company they are doing and lower insurance rates.”
That’s trading the right to privacy for the financial bottom line, she says.
Vobora says that in response to recently voiced concerns, LTD is looking into increasing signage and putting information into bus newsletters, particularly during times such as the beginning of the school year when ridership increases.